Hasan: Studying abroad: a white experience

How study abroad programs are catered to only one group of people.

Aleezeh Hasan

Last semester I was abroad in Rabat, Morocco. It was an incredible experience and I had the chance to meet many new people. The program I was studying with had only 40 people in it, and out of these 40, only eight were people of color. At the beginning of the trip it didn’t seem to be a huge deal. I have grown used to being the only minority in large groups. However, over time, it became clear that many of my peers lacked cultural sensitivity.

The racism of these white students was overwhelmingly obvious when they were in a new country. Examples of this came up when some students used Muslim phrases like “inshallah” when speaking about alcohol and partying. The phrase is forbidden within Islam, which made the use of the phrases offensive and frustrating to me since I am actually a Muslim. 

Another shocking comment was made within a classroom when a white student got angry at our Arabic professor for how Arabic grammar didn’t make sense. A native English speaker then described the entire language of Arabic as nonsensical. 

Besides racist comments, insensitivity toward financial statuses was a common issue. One girl within my program openly asked, “What’s a FAFSA?” And had never heard of something like it. Some students had come to the program through scholarships, so these comments were incredibly disheartening and difficult for them to hear. 

Other students had regularly traveled to expensive locations, and looked down upon those who couldn’t afford to do the same. 

A larger issue within the program was that it appeared to be tailored to white students. Many of the lessons they taught us during orientation didn’t seem to be applicable to me or my fellow people of color. Such as extensive conversations about how we needed to dress modestly, or explanations about cultural traditions that are common within most non-Western countries. 

These problems need to be addressed immediately so minority students do not feel marginalized during an experience that can already be mentally and emotionally challenging. Programs should aim to make American students feel at home. Fellow students are currently comfortable making racially insensitive comments and students are not respectful of the new culture they are within. 

In order to change this, a screening process is necessary for new students. A simple test could be given as part of the application when students are signing up to go to non-Western nations. Other than this, programs could increase discussions about these issues. My fellow minority peers and I found ourselves venting privately to each other about the frustrations we felt toward the group. If we had been given an open space to discuss some of these issues, then we may have felt safer within the program and wouldn’t have needed to resort to private communication.